An Earnest Ministry—the Need of the Times

John Angell James, 1847

collected from various authors


Familiar as most readers of this work are with examples of the kind of manner intended, it will help to illustrate and enforce its nature, if a few extracts from different authors are here introduced, by way of specimens. Those which are here presented are not selected as possessing anything very extraordinary, or as being the best of the kind that could be selected from the same authors; but they are sufficient to answer the purpose. Nor are they exhibited as models, to be in every particular imitated in modern composition—but as being pervaded by that one quality of intense earnestness, which it is the object of this work to recommend.

The first extract which shall be quoted is from a sermon of Mr. Doolittle. This eminent minister of Christ was ejected by the Act of Uniformity in 1662. He was a man of extraordinary courage, power, and success, in preaching; and, after his expulsion from his living, educated young men for the ministry. The extract which follows is taken from a discourse contained in that valuable series called "The Morning Exercises," and is entitled "How we should eye Eternity, so that it may have its influence on all we do." It is perhaps the most solemn sermon in the English or any other language; it is sadly overcharged with terminology, which should be sparingly introduced, though it ought not to be altogether excluded from the pulpit, even in this fastidious age. The sickly sentimentalism which would "never mention hell to ears polite," should be renounced with as much disgust, as gross familiarity with such solemn realities. It was not only Doolittle's fault—but it was the vice of the age, to approach somewhat too near to the latter extreme. But then, after this admission is made, let us look at the burning and overwhelming earnestness of the sermon.

"Is there an eternal state—such unseen eternal joys and torments? Who then can sufficiently lament the blindness, madness, and folly of this perishing world, and the unreasonableness of those that have rational and eternal souls, to see them busily employed in the matters of time, which are only for time—in present honors, pleasures, and profits, while they do neglect everlasting things! Everlasting life and death is before them, everlasting joy or torment is near at hand; and yet poor sinners take no care how to avoid the one, or obtain the other. Is it not matter of lamentation to see so many thousands bereaved of the sober serious use of their minds? That while they use their reason to get the riches of this world, they will not act as rational men to get the joys of heaven! They will avoid temporal calamities—yet not escape eternal misery. Or if they be fallen into present afflictions, they contrive how they may get out of them if they be sick, reason tells them they must use the means if they would be well—if they be in pain, nature puts them on to seek after a remedy. And yet these same men neglect all duty, and cast away all care concerning everlasting matters. They are for worldly pleasures and profits which are passing from them in the enjoyment of them; but the unseen eternal glories of heaven they neither seek, nor think of.

"Are they unjustly charged? Let conscience speak what thoughts they lie down with upon their pillow; if they wake, or sleep flies from them in the silent night, what a noise does the care of the world make in their souls? With what thoughts do they rise in the morning? Of God, or of the world? Of the things of time, or of eternity? Their thoughts are in their shops before they have been in heaven; and many desires after visible temporal gain, before they have had one desire after the invisible, eternal God, and treasures that are above. What do they do all the day long? What is it that has their endeavors, all their labor and time? Their most painful industry and unwearied diligence? Alas! their consciences will tell themselves, and their practices tell others, when there is trading—but no praying; buying and selling—but no godly duties performed—the shop-book is often opened—but the sacred book of God is not looked into all the week long.

"O Lord! forgive the hardness of my heart that I can see such insufferable folly among reasonable creatures, and can lament this folly no more—good Lord, forgive the lack of compassion in me that can stand and see this madness in the world, as if the most of men had lost their wits and were quite beside themselves, and yet my affections yearn no more towards immortal souls that are going to unseen miseries in the eternal world; to see foolish, unthinking men busy in doing things that tend to no account, is not such an amazing sight as to see men that have reason for the world, to use it not for God, and Christ, and their own eternal good—to see them love and embrace a present ash-heap world, and cast away all serious, affecting, and effectual thoughts of the life to come—to see them rage against the God of heaven, and cry out against holiness as foolish preciseness, and serious godliness as madness and melancholy.

"Let us call the whole creation of God to lament and bewail the folly of man that was made the best of all God's visible works—but now by such wickedness is bad beyond them all; being made by God for an everlasting state, and yet minds nothing less than that for which he was principally made.

"O sun! why is it not your burden to give light to men to do those works and walk in those ways that bring them to eternal darkness? O earth! why do you not groan to bear such burdensome fools that dig into your mines for gold and silver, while they neglect everlasting treasures in the eternal world? O you sheep and oxen! fish and fowl! why do you not cry out against those who take away your life to maintain them in being—but only mind present things—but forget the eternal God that gave them dominion over you, to live upon you, while they had time to mind eternal things—but do not? O you angels of God, and blessed saints in heaven, were you capable of grief and sorrow, would not you bitterly lament the sin and folly of poor mortals upon earth? Could you look down from that blessed place where you do dwell and behold the joy and glory which is to us unseen, and see how it is basely slighted by the sons of men, if you were not above sorrow and mourning, would not you take this up for a bitter lamentation? O you saints on earth! whose eyes are open to see what the blind deluded world does not see—let your heads be fountains of water, and your eyes send forth rivers of tears for the great neglect of eternal joys and happiness of heaven. Can you see men going out of time into eternity in their sin and in their blood, in their guilt and unconverted state, and your hearts not be moved? your affections not yearn? Have you spent all your tears in bewailing your own sin, that your eyes are dry when you behold such monstrous madness and unparalleled folly of so many, with whom daily you converse? You holy parents, have you no pity for your ungodly children? Godly children, have you no pity for your ungodly parents?"

The next extract I shall present is from holy Baxter, under whose ministry Doolittle was converted, and from whom he appears to have borrowed his own manner of preaching.

"O sirs, they are no trifles or jesting matters that the gospel speaks of. I must tell you that when I have the most serious thoughts of these things, I am ready to wonder that such amazing matters do not overwhelm the souls of men—that the greatness of the subject does not so overmatch our understandings and affections as even to drive men besides themselves—but that God has always somewhat allayed it by distance; much more do I wonder that men should be so blockish as to make light of such things. O Lord, that men did but know what everlasting glory and everlasting torments are! Would they then hear us as they do? Would they read and think of these things as they do? I profess I have been ready to wonder when I have heard such weighty things delivered, how people can forbear crying out in the congregation; and much more do I wonder how they can rest until they have gone to their ministers, and learned what they shall do to be saved, that this great business should be put out of doubt. O that heaven and hell should have no greater effect upon men! O that eternity should effect them no more! O how can you forbear when you are alone—to think with yourselves what it is to be everlasting in joy or torment! I wonder that such thoughts do not break your sleep, and that they do not crowd into your minds when you are about your labor! I wonder how you can almost do anything else! How can you have any quietness in your minds? How can you eat, or drink, or rest, until you have got some ground of everlasting consolations? Is that a man or a corpse that is not affected with matters of this significance; that can be readier to sleep than to tremble when he hears how he must stand at the judgment bar of God? Is that a man, or a 'clod of clay' who can rise up and lie down without being deeply affected with his everlasting state; who can follow his worldly business and make nothing of the great business of salvation or damnation, and that when he knows it is so near at hand?

"Truly, sirs, when I think of the weight of the matter, I wonder at the best saints upon earth—that they are no better, and do no more, in so weighty a case. I wonder at those whom the world accounts more holy than necessary, and scorns for making so much ado, that they can put off Christ and their souls with so little; that they do not pour out their souls in every prayer; that they are not more taken up with God; that their thoughts are not more serious in preparation for their last account. I wonder that they are not a thousand times more strict in their lives, and more laborious and unwearied for the crown of glory, than they are. And for myself, as I am ashamed of my dull and careless heart, and of my slow and unprofitable course of life, so the Lord knows I am ashamed of every sermon that I preach—when I think what I am, and who sent me, and how much the salvation and damnation of men is concerned in it, I am ready to tremble lest God should judge me a slighter of the truth and the souls of men, and lest in my best sermons I should be guilty of their blood. Methinks we should not speak a word to men in matters of such consequence without tears, or the greatest earnestness that possibly we can. Were we not too much guilty of the sin which we reprove, it would be so. Whether we are alone or in company, methinks our end, and such an end, should still be in our mind, and as before our eyes; and we should sooner forget anything, or set light by anything, or by all things, than by this."

The next extract is from John Howe. "If anyone does not love the Lord--a curse be on him." 1 Cor. 16:22. Oh! what a soul have I—which can love anything else, which can love trifles, which can love impurities, which can love sin; but cannot love God, Christ, and heaven! Oh! What a soul have I! No lover of God! no lover of God! Oh my soul, what will become of you? Pity yourself! Where are you to have your eternal abode? To what regions of horror and woe are you going? What society can be fit for you? What, but of infernal, accursed spirits, who are at utmost distance from God, and to whom no beam of holy vital light shall ever shine to all eternity! You, oh my soul, are self-abandoned to the blackness of darkness forever! Your doom is in your bosom, your own bosom! Your not loving God is your own doom, your eternal doom! It creates you a present hell, and shows where you belong!

The next extract is from Jonathan Edwards sermon, on "Pressing into the Kingdom of God." This extraordinary man presents a remarkable proof and illustration of the most acute logician and the most earnest preacher. His sermons are some of the most impressive and alarming we have—but certainly not a little lacking in the tenderness and melting pathos of the gospel of salvation. They may be read with admirable effect to teach us how to expound the nature and enforce the obligations of the moral law so as to awaken the slumbering conscience of the unconverted sinner. His astonishing usefulness shows the adaptation of his preaching to the age and state of society in which he lived—but this method could not be rigidly followed, except in its earnestness, in the present day.

"1. I would address myself to such as yet remain unawakened. It is a dreadful thing that there should be any one person remaining secure among us at such a time as this; but yet it is to be feared that there are some of this sort. I would here a little expostulate with such people.

"When do you expect that it will be more likely that you shall be awakened and wrought upon than now? You are in a Christless condition; and yet without doubt intend to go to heaven; and therefore intend to be converted some time before you die; but this is not to be expected until you are first awakened, and deeply concerned about the welfare of your soul, and brought earnestly to seek God's converting grace. And when do you intend that this shall be? How do you lay things out in your own mind, or what projection have you about this matter? Is it ever so likely that a person will be awakened, as at such a time as this? How do we see many who before were secure, now roused out of their sleep, and crying, What shall I do to be saved? But you are yet secure! Do you flatter yourself that it will be more likely you should be awakened when it is a dull and dead time? Do you lay matters out thus in your own mind, that though you are senseless when others are generally awakened, that yet you shall be awakened when others are generally senseless? Or do you hope to see another such time of the pouring out of God's Spirit hereafter? And do you think it will be more likely that you should be wrought upon then than now? And why do you think so? Is it because then you shall be so much older than you are now, and so that your heart will be grown softer and more tender with age, or because you will then have stood out so much longer against the calls of the gospel, and all means of grace? Do you think it more likely that God will give you the needed influences of his Spirit then than now, because then you will have provoked him so much more and your sin and guilt will be so much greater? And do you think it will be any benefit to you to stand it out through the present season of grace, as proof against the extraordinary means of awakening there are? Do you think that this will be a good preparation for a saving work of the Spirit hereafter?

"2. What means do you expect to be awakened by? As to the awakening solemn things of the Word of God, you have had those set before you times without number, in the most moving manner that the preachers of the word have been capable of. As to particular solemn warnings, directed to those that are in your circumstances, you have had them frequently, and have them now from time to time. Do you expect to be awakened by solemn providences? Those also you have lately had, of the most awakening nature, one after another. Do you expect to be moved by the deaths of others? We have lately had repeated instances of these. There have been deaths of old and young—the year has been remarkable for the deaths of young people in the bloom of life, and some of them very sudden deaths. Will the conversion of others move you? There is indeed scarce anything that is found to have so great a tendency to stir people up as this; and this you have been tried with of late in frequent instances; but are hitherto armored against it. Will a general pouring out of the Spirit, and seeing a concern about salvation among all sorts of people, do it? This means you now have—but without effect. Yes, you have all these things together; you have the solemn warnings of God's word, and solemn instances of death, and the conversion of others, and see a general concern about salvation; but altogether do not move you to any great concern about your own precious, immortal, and miserable soul. Therefore consider by what means it is that you expect ever to be awakened.

"You have heard that it is probable some who are now awakened, will never obtain salvation; how dark then does it look upon you who remain stupidly unawakened! Those who are not moved at such a time as this, come to adult age, have reason to fear whether they are not given up to judicial hardness. I do not say they have reason to conclude it—but they have reason to fear it. How dark does it look upon you, that God comes and knocks at so many people' doors, and misses yours! that God is giving the strivings of his Spirit so generally among us, while you are left senseless!

"3. Do you expect to obtain salvation without ever seeking it? If you are sensible that there is a necessity of your seeking in order to obtaining, and ever intend to seek, one would think you could not avoid it at such a time as this. Inquire therefore whether you intend to go to heaven, living all your days a secure, negligent, careless life; Or,

"4. Do you think you can bear the damnation of hell? Do you imagine that you can tolerably endure the devouring fire and everlasting burnings? Do you hope that you shall be able to grapple with the vengeance of God Almighty, when he girds himself with strength, and clothes himself with wrath? Do you think to strengthen yourself against God, and to be able to make your part good with him? 1 Cor. 10:22, 'Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? are we stronger than he?' Do you flatter yourself that you shall find out ways for your ease and support, and to make it out tolerably well, to bear up your spirit in those everlasting burnings that are prepared for the devil and his angels? Ezek. 22:14. 'Can your heart endure or can your hands be strong, in the days that I shall deal with you?' It is a difficult thing to conceive what such Christless people think, that are unconcerned at such a time."

The following extract is from that first of all preachers, Whitfield; and who that considers the circumstances under which these flaming words were enunciated, and the feeling and action which accompanied their delivery, can wonder at the effects they produced?

"O my brethren, my heart is enlarged towards you. I trust I feel something of that hidden but powerful presence of Christ, while I am preaching to you. Indeed it is sweet, it is exceedingly comfortable. All the harm I wish you, who without cause are my enemies, is, that you felt the like. Believe me, though it would be hell to my soul to return to a natural state again, yet I would willingly change states with you for a little while, that you might know what it is to have Christ dwelling in your hearts by faith. Do not turn your backs; do not let the devil hurry you away; be not afraid of convictions; do not think worse of the doctrine because preached outside the church walls. Our Lord, in the days of his flesh, preached on a mountain, in a ship, and in a field; and I am persuaded many have felt his gracious presence here. Indeed, we speak what we know.

"Do not reject the kingdom of God against yourselves; be so wise as to receive our witness. I cannot, I will not, let you go; stay a little, let us reason together. However lightly you may esteem your souls, I know our Lord has set an unspeakable value on them. He thought them worthy of his most precious blood. I beseech you therefore O sinners, be reconciled to God. I hope you do not fear being accepted in the Beloved. Behold, he calls you—behold, he goes before, and follows you with his mercy, and has sent forth his servants into the highways and hedges, to compel you to come in. Remember then, that at such an hour of such a day, in such a year, in this place, you were all told what you ought to think concerning Jesus Christ. If you now perish, it will not be for lack of knowledge—I am free from the blood of you all. You cannot say I have, like legal preachers, been requiring you to make bricks without straw. I have not bidden you to make yourselves saints, and then come to God; but I have offered you salvation on as cheap terms as you can desire. I have offered you Christ's whole wisdom, Christ's whole righteousness, Christ's whole sanctification and eternal redemption, if you will but believe on him. If you say you cannot believe, you say right; for faith, as well as every other blessing, is the gift of God—but then wait upon God, and who knows but he may have mercy upon you?

"Why do you not entertain more loving thoughts of Christ? Or do you think he will have mercy on others, and not on you? But are you not sinners? And did not Jesus Christ come into the world to save sinners? If you say you are the chief of sinners, I answer, that will be no hindrance to your salvation; indeed it will not, if you lay hold on him by faith. Read the evangelists, and see how kindly he behaved to his disciples, who fled from and denied him—'Go tell my brethren,' says he. He did not say, Go tell those traitors—but 'Go tell my Brethren, and Peter;' as though he had said, 'Go tell my brethren, in general, and poor Peter in particular, that I am risen.' O comfort his poor drooping heart, tell him I am reconciled to him; bid him weep no more so bitterly; for though with oaths and curses he thrice denied me, yet I have died for his sins, I am risen again for his justification; I freely forgive him all.

"Thus slow to anger and of great kindness was our all-merciful High Priest. And do you think he has changed his nature, and forgets poor sinners, now he is exalted on the right hand of God? No, he is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and sits there only to make intercession for us. Come then, you harlots; come, you publicans; come, you most abandoned of sinners, come and believe on Jesus Christ. Though the whole world despises you and casts you out, yet he will not disdain to take you up. O amazing, O infinitely condescending love! even you he will not be ashamed to call his brethren. How will you escape, if you neglect such a glorious offer of salvation? What would the damned spirits, now in the prison of hell, give, if Christ was so freely offered to their souls! And why are not we lifting up our eyes in torments? Does any one out of this great multitude dare say, he does not deserve damnation? If not, why are we left, and others taken away by death? What is this but an instance of God's free grace, and a sign of his good-will towards us? Let God's goodness lead us to repentance! O let there be joy in heaven over some of you repenting!

"Though we are in a field, I am persuaded the blessed angels are hovering now around us, and do long, 'as the hart pants after the water-brooks,' to sing an anthem at your conversion. Blessed be God, I hope their joy will be fulfilled. A dreadful silence appears among us. I have good hope that the words which the Lord has enabled me to speak in your ears this day, have not altogether fallen to the ground. Your tears and deep attention are an evidence that the Lord God is among us of a truth. Come you pharisees, come and see, in spite of your fanatical rage and fury, the Lord Jesus is getting himself the victory. And, brethren, I speak the truth in Christ, I lie not—if one soul of you by the blessing of God be brought to think savingly of Jesus Christ this day, I care not if my enemies were permitted to carry me to prison, and put my feet fast in the stocks, as soon as I have delivered this sermon. Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God is, that you may be saved. For this cause I follow my Master outside the camp. I care not how much of his sacred reproach I bear, so that some of you be converted from the error of your ways. I rejoice, yes and I will rejoice. You men, you devils, do your worst—the Lord who sent will support me. And when Christ, who is our life, and whom I have now been preaching, shall appear, I also, together with his despised little ones, shall appear with him in glory.

"And then what will you think of Christ? I know what you will think of him. You will think him to be the fairest among ten thousand; you will then think and feel him to be a just and sin-avenging Judge. Be then persuaded to kiss him lest he be angry, and so you be banished forever from the presence of the Lord. Behold I come to you as the angel did to Lot. Flee, flee for your lives! hasten! linger no longer in your spiritual Sodom, for otherwise you will be eternally destroyed. Numbers no doubt there are among you that may regard me no more than Lot's son-in-law regarded him. I am persuaded I seem to some of you as one that mocks—but I speak the truth in Christ, I lie not; as sure as fire and brimstone was rained from the Lord out of heaven, to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, so surely at the great day shall the vials of God's wrath be poured on you, if you do not think seriously of, and act agreeably to, the gospel of the Lord's Christ. Behold, I have told you before; and I pray God, all you that forget him may seriously think of what has been said, before he plucks you away, and there be none to deliver you!"

These extracts will illustrate what I mean by earnestness, better than any language which I have employed or could select, and they appear to me to answer well to the apostolic method of beseeching entreaty. I do not of course insist that the pulpit should be restricted to the specific variety of preaching which we designate the hortatory method, under which classification these specimens must all be placed. There should be exegesis—as well as application; exposition—as well as admonition. The judgment must be enlightened—in order that the heart may be impressed, and the conscience awakened; and the believer edified—no less than the sinner converted; and for this a less impassioned strain of preaching will not only suffice—but will indeed be more appropriate. Yet with regard to that portion of our public ministrations, and it should be no small portion of it, which has reference to the conversion of the impenitent, where shall we find better models on which to construct our sermons, than the Doolittles, the Howes, the Baxters, and the Whitfields of former times—so far at least as their intense earnestness is concerned.

It is true the moderns have improved upon these men in matters of taste, in reference to which we do not of course hold them up for imitation. In their numerous and complicated divisions and subdivisions, through which, as so many little rills and channels, they poured the current of their thought, instead of causing it to roll onward in the channel of their sermon with the majestic flow of a noble river; in their quaintnesses and quirks; in their fanciful imagery and uncouth diction; in the occasional vulgarity, in which some of them were but too prone to indulge—they mark errors to be avoided. Yet even in reference to some of these things, it may be affirmed, that though in their free and reckless resort to every mode of stimulating attention, they were often betrayed into great violations of taste—the very same audacity of genius often produced felicities of imagery and diction, with which the 'blameless common place' and the 'accurate insipidity' of many modern discourses will not bear any comparison either for beauty or effect.

For pregnancy of thought, for knowledge of the Word of God, for raciness of style, for evangelical sentiment, for anatomy of the human heart, for closeness of application, and especially for intensity of feeling—where shall we find their equals? They preached to their congregations, and not merely before them—they felt that the objects of their addresses were immortal souls in danger of being lost, and knew their business in the pulpit was to save those souls from perdition—they preached as if they expected there and then to achieve the great work of conversion; and felt as if the eternal destinies of their hearers were suspended on the manner in which they discharged their duties, and as if they were to ascend the next moment after they had finished their sermons to give an account of them at the bar of God. Do not the extracts given, (and they are but a very inadequate sample of their works,) bear out these assertions? The power they exhibit, the heart-searching appeals in which they abound—are the very things now lacking!

There may be, and there should be, more of classic elegance, more of logical arrangement, of theological precision, of vigorous and clear argumentation, than we find in the old writers; but still, combined with this, there should also be in our sermons, as there were in theirs, the pointed interrogation, the pungent appeal, the bold figures, the gush of feeling, the forcible admonition, and the tender invitation; now the gentle flow of deep, and solemn, and placid thought, and then the torrent-rush of impassioned sentiment—the beautiful and harmonious combination of reason, imagination, and affection; and all employed to carry out the purpose for which the gospel is to be preached, even to win souls to Christ.

Especially should there be the direct personal address which characterizes all the extracts which I have introduced. Our hearers must be made to feel that they are not merely listening to the discussion of a subject—but to an appeal to themselves—their attention must be kept up, and a close connection between them and the preacher maintained, by the frequent introduction of the pronoun "you," so that each may realize the thought that the discourse is actually addressed to him. Many preachers do not come near enough to their congregations. Those who were privileged to hear Mr. Hall deliver, in his best days, some of his most popular and powerful discourses, will not fail to recollect how strikingly he combined the intense earnestness of the passages just quoted, with the chaste and classic elegance of our best writers; and thus, considering the evangelical strain of his preaching he may be said to have poured forth a torrent of the water of life, clear as crystal. He reminded you of one, who in his yearnings for the salvation of sinners seemed to feel that language was too feeble an instrument for such a purpose and who, notwithstanding his sovereign command and exquisite selection of terminology, was struggling to burst the barrier by which words limit the communication of thought, in order that he might by a still more direct method, reach and grasp the soul of his hearers.

There is, however, hope that our old theological writers will not be quite forgotten or neglected, while such men as Professor Stowell, of Rotherham College, employ their talents in writing prefaces to reprints of works such as those of Thomas Adams, and lend their authority to recommend the perusal of such monuments of sanctified genius. Beautifully and no less correctly has he said, "As Edwards constrains to closeness of thought; as Howe inspires sublimity of sentiment; as Bates lights up the soul with a soft and silvery light; as Owen loads the mind with a harvest of rich knowledge; as Taylor cheers the imagination with a vintage of delicious grapes; as Baxter fires the soul with longings for salvation, first of ourselves and then of others; even so does Adams lead to those springs of graphic power, of dramatic grandeur, and of subduing pathos, which it is the fear of many are dried up. We believe they are not. We cannot but think there are minds now opening on the solemn solemnities of the Christian ministry, to whom this example will be inciting; let them look at the things with their own eyes, ponder them in silent and lonely thought, pray over the fruits of such meditations, until they kindle into living pictures; and so let them pour out their feelings into the best words they can find; there will then be no just complaint of the lack of power and originality in the English pulpit."

Happy will it be for this, and for all coming ages, if the men of the present day will study, with all the advantages, checks, and guides of modern education—the divines of the seventeenth century—not indeed as models of style or logic—but of intense earnestness; not as writers who should teach us in all things how to think—but how to feel. I would not have the modern mind, so much as the modern heart, cast in the mold of these great-hearted writers. Even their theology is not to be rigidly copied; but O! their unction; their mighty power of realization; their nearness to God; their views of eternity—so intent, so clear, so piercing; their thorough understanding of the object of their ministry, and their entire consecration of themselves to its solemn functions. Oh that we could transcribe and make all these our own!